The Gospel Coalition (TGC)
the Theological Famine Relief Project of TGC International Outreach
A Report by Ligon Duncan
Chancellor and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary
We have witnessed a resurgence of Reformed theology among the younger generations in North America (and in various places around the globe – I have met it on every continent as I have traveled), an awakening that has become especially apparent in the last fifteen years. There have been a number of helpful discussions on where it has come from. Read Mark Dever’s thoughts on this in “Where’d all these Calvinists come from?” at http://9marks.org/article/whered-all-these-calvinists-come-from/. John Piper’s Gaffin Lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, titled “The New Calvinism and the New Community,” which you can read, view or listen to, here: http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/the-new-calvinism-and-the-new-community also addresses this issue. I reflected on this matter in a panel at the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego last year (along with my interlocutors D.G. Hart and Christian George).
I agree with all that Mark and John say in their presentations, but I would add, to complement what they have said, and to give a little background to their specific suggestions, five factors in the Calvinistic resurgence. The collapse of theological liberalism, growing cultural antipathy to historic Christianity, the failure of the church growth movement, the Battle for the Bible, and the theological seriousness of the Reformed tradition. I will elaborate on these in the breakout session.
1. The collapse of theological liberalism – In the 20th century, theological liberalism won the culture, but lost the church. In the 21st century, the culture has moved beyond theological liberalism. It is a spent force, intellectually and theologically. It is not inspiring the imaginations of the younger generation (of Christians, at least).
2. The growing cultural antipathy to historic Christianity – The younger generations in the west have not grown up in a situation where they feel a part of the dominant culture. If they are evangelical, they already know the world is not their friend. They harbor no illusions of a “Christian America” or a “Moral Majority.” The dominant culture now views itself as ethically superior to Christianity, and thus expresses contempt for historical Christian teachings on basic things like marriage and sexuality. This cultural antipathy has pushed a younger generation of evangelical Christians towards robust theological resources necessary to be a minority report that engages, with both love and confidence, a world that is at odds with it.
3. The failure of the church growth movement – The younger generations of evangelicalism in North America are the products and victims of the theological shallowness and methodological pragmatism of the church growth movement. The church growth movement set out to reach the unchurched but ended up effectively de-churching the churched. Younger evangelicals have seen its emptiness and are looking for a deeper, rooted, explicitly theological vision of the church and mission.
4. The Battle for the Bible – In the late 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s, when “the Battle for the Bible” was raging, though there was significant dispensational leadership, the main names in the evangelical world speaking for a high view of Scripture were Reformed. Think of J.I. Packer, John Stott, Francis Shaeffer, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, Carl F.H. Henry, Don Carson, and many others like them. They were Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist or Independent, but they were all Calvinistic in their theology. This had the effect of commending Calvinism in mainstream evangelical Christianity.
5. The theological seriousness of the Reformed tradition – If you occupy a hostile cultural environment that views itself as intellectually and ethically superior to historic Christianity, and your major alternatives to evangelicalism are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, both with impressive intellectual, theological, ethical traditions, then you’d better have the resources to have “the courage to be Protestant” as David Wells puts it. Those resources are available in the Reformed tradition. This is why Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance says openly: “Reformed theology is the one thing the evangelical movement needs most.” A younger generation clearly agrees with him.
All five of these things are factors, I think, in the young, Reformed awakening of our time. I fully appreciate many of the robust criticisms of the so-called “New Calvinism” and the caveats that have been raised (especially in matters of ecclesiology), but I remain primarily grateful to God for a unique moment of opportunity. I am a confessional Calvinist appreciative of the “New Calvinism” and who views confessional Calvinism as a happy and important part of American evangelicalism. I believe that the “New Calvinism” is a rejection of the pragmatism and doctrinal minimalism of church growth movement era evangelicalism and an embrace of parts of Reformed theology, especially via the Great Awakening and Puritan expressions of that tradition. I believe that the posture of confessional Calvinism to this young Reformed awakening ought to be hopeful, appreciative, constructive, fraternal, helpfully critical and humble.
The Gospel Coalition has provided both a networking center and theological resources for this young Reformed movement. My task today is to tell you about The Gospel Coalition and the Theological Famine Relief Project being administered through The Gospel Coalition International Outreach. Full disclosure, I am a member of The Gospel Coalition Council and will be speaking at the National conference in Orlando next month, as will one of our World Reformed Fellowship speakers, Dr. Augustus Nicodemus.
The Gospel Coalition (or TGC) is a fellowship of evangelical and Reformed pastors and church leaders that emerged from a small group of friends and colleagues brought together for a colloquium (literally called then the “Pastors’ Colloquium”) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in May of 2005 by Don Carson (Baptist, and professor at TEDS, as well as President of TGC) and Tim Keller, (Presbyterian, and Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church New York City, as well as Founder/Chairman of Redeemer City to City). The Pastors’ Colloquium became known as TGC, after the first Together for the Gospel (or T4G) conference had taken place (2006).
I mention both of these groups, The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, because they are sometimes confused (understandably so!). They have similar names and acronyms (T4G and TGC), their leadership overlaps, they both sponsor major conferences (the largest Reformed/evangelical national conferences in North America), they are both committed to Reformed theology in their respective statements of faith, and they have both played an institutional role in the young Reformed movement in the US and worldwide.
What is Together for the Gospel (T4G)?
Together for the Gospel was founded by Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney and me (and we were joined by R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur and John Piper). T4G is conference that grew out of a friendship between a Southern Baptist Pastor, Cambridge PhD and founder/president of 9Marks (Mark Dever), a former Roman Catholic who had become a pastor and movement leader for an international family of Reformed continuationist churches (C.J. Mahaney), a Southern Baptist Seminary President and denominational leader (Al Mohler) and a presbyterian minister, seminary professor and Moderator of the PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] (Ligon Duncan, yours truly). We differed on important theological issues such as baptism, church polity and the charismatic gifts, but we agreed on far more than we disagreed and we were committed to standing together for the main thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ. We also loved one another, not in spite of our disagreements, but even because of them. We knew that truth and doctrine mattered to each one of us. We believed that pastors and churches needed a Gospel-centered, truth-grounded approach to the mission and ministry of the church, and that pastors needed friendships with other pastors committed to the same. So in 2004 we started planning for a biennial conference that began in 2006 to serve one main purpose: to encourage other pastors to stand together for the same gospel. The goal of these friendships and conferences is to reaffirm the central doctrine of the Christian faith and to encourage local churches to do the same. T4G became a catalyst for the young Reformed resurgence in North America, with about 3,500 mostly pastors and church leaders in attendance (most of them in their 30s or under) at its very first conference (and around 7000+ subsequently).
What is The Gospel Coalition (TGC)?
The Gospel Coalition (TGC) grew out of a friendship between Don Carson and Tim Keller. Don and Tim believed that evangelicalism had lost its theological “center” (or at least that that “center” had become more amorphous in recent years) and that various groups speaking from the margins were attempting to steer the movement (usually unhelpfully and unsuccessfully). They believed that evangelicalism would be better served by a robust theological center that was animated by the Gospel and dynamically committed to the mission of the church. So, in 2005, they brought together a small group of pastors and church leaders (about 30) to explore the idea of working together to help create a positive, attractive, theologically trustworthy, Gospel-centered network that would provide a rallying point for younger evangelicals who were looking for commitments both to sound theology and to a theologically informed contextualization and cultural engagement in pursuit of the mission of the church.
Don and Tim also felt that, while there were voices “out there” telling evangelicalism that “it had gotten it wrong” (since the early 1990s, numerous books and groups had criticized evangelicalism’s theological vacuity, pragmatism, consumerism, etc), there were no groups that were providing a positive persuasive alternative to the objects of their critiques. Don and Tim wanted to initiate a network that would be humble and engaging in its tone, positively encourage and influence other evangelicals, and compellingly show an approach to the ministry and mission of the church that would be reformed and evangelical, theologically-minded, with an outward-looking, forward-looking, missional orientation, that could show the way ahead for evangelicalism.
Mark, Al, C.J. and I all already had friendships with Don Carson and Tim Keller before TGC began, so when they began to put together their own organization, after T4G had launched, and after I had been elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and had become President of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) –for which Mark, Al and C.J. were also Council members– Don and Tim asked us to participate with them in the Pastors’ Colloquium which became TGC, and we were happy to do so. One of the problems of evangelicalism has been fragmentation into parties and competing/duplicating sub-groups, so we did not want to perpetuate that or “compete” with TGC (or be seen as competitors), but rather participate and cooperate in their slightly different vision and mission. I might add that at the early Pastors’ Colloquium and then later TGC Council meetings, this was explicitly discussed. Don made it clear that it was not his intention for TGC to be in competition with T4G, ACE or any other entity. Indeed, TGC chose to hold its national pastors’ conference in the “off years” of T4G for this very reason. T4G holds its conference in even years, since 2006. TGC holds its national conference in odd years, since 2007. T4G has consistently met in Louisville, Kentucky since 2006 and is a little larger than TGC. The T4G gathering had around 7500-8000 in attendance in 2012 and 2014, and TGC around 4500-5000 in 2013 and 2015. TGC has met in Chicago and Orlando.
To recap Together for the Gospel is friendship that led to a conference. We deliberately meet only every two years, we emphasize that the church is God’s plan for mission (telling everyone we can “what happens in your local congregation Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day is far more important than what happens at the T4G Conference”), and we aim to serve and encourage pastors as they lead their churches in that mission. The Gospel Coalition aspires to (and carries out) a more extensive collaboration, including facilitating regional, national and international conferences and ministry networks, providing a website that aims to be both an equipping and news resource, annual meetings of the leadership, and more. This has led some to accuse TGC of wanting to become a denomination, but the leadership of TGC has consistently rejected that.
How The Gospel Coalition (TGC) defines itself
Here is how TGC defines itself: TGC “exists to prepare the next generation for gospel-centered ministry. We are a group of (mostly) pastors from churches in the Reformed heritage who delight in the truth and power of the gospel, and who want the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected to be at the center of all we cherish, preach, and teach. In a time of endless fragmentation, it is easy to sound prophetic from the margins, but one of the most urgent needs of any generation is to be prophetic from the center—from what the Bible makes the center. We want to be robustly biblical, richly theological, constantly elevating what God himself in his own Word makes central.”
“We are not looking for some inexpensive lowest-common-denominator theology, as if unity that is biblically understood can be increased by enlarging the list of things we cannot discuss. Far from it: to focus on Christ and the gospel does not mean that every other subject is off limits; rather, it means we want to be able to address the full panoply of biblical topics and understanding of our times through the prism of what the Bible itself makes the focal point.”
“We want to encourage Christians to be salt and light in the full panoply of life, living out the norms of the kingdom in ways that do good to people around us while challenging the cultural status quo with the norms of the kingdom and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth.”
“The Gospel Coalition is a fellowship of evangelical pastors and church leaders in the Reformed tradition, from a variety of denominational backgrounds, who are deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”
“TGC is concerned about movements within traditional evangelicalism that diminish the importance of the church and historic beliefs and practices, the influence of individualism and consumerism, and the politicization of faith; theological and moral relativism. These movements have led to the easy abandonment of both biblical truth and the transformed living mandated by our historic faith. We not only hear of these influences, we see their effects. We have committed ourselves to invigorating churches with new hope and compelling joy based on the promises received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”
“We believe that in many evangelical churches a deep and broad consensus exists regarding the truths of the gospel. Yet we often see the celebration of our union with Christ replaced by the age-old attractions of power and affluence, or by monastic retreats into ritual, liturgy, and sacrament. What replaces the gospel will never promote a mission-hearted faith anchored in enduring truth working itself out in unashamed discipleship eager to stand the tests of kingdom-calling and sacrifice. We desire to advance along the King’s highway, always aiming to provide gospel advocacy, encouragement, and education so that current- and next-generation church leaders are better equipped to fuel their ministries with principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom he shed his life’s blood.”
“We want to generate a unified effort among all peoples—an effort that is zealous to honor Christ and multiply his disciples, joining in a true coalition for Jesus. Such a biblically grounded and united mission is the only enduring future for the church. This reality compels us to stand with others who are stirred by the conviction that the mercy of God in Jesus Christ is our only hope of eternal salvation. We desire to champion this gospel with clarity, compassion, courage, and joy—gladly linking hearts with fellow believers across denominational, ethnic, and class lines.”
“Our desire is to serve the church we love by inviting all our brothers and sisters to join us in an effort to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Christ so that we truly speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age. As pastors, we intend to do this in our churches through the ordinary means of his grace: prayer, the ministry of the Word, baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the fellowship of the saints. We yearn to work with all who, in addition to embracing the confession and vision set out here [in our Confessional Statement and our Theological Vision for Ministry], seek the lordship of Christ over the whole of life with unabashed hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform individuals, communities, and cultures. [Ours is] a vision rooted in the Scriptures and centered on the gospel.”
So, TGC is an important influence on and manifestation of the genuine young reformed resurgence that is evident not only in North America, but internationally. One of its interesting projects is theological famine relief. I have been asked to tell you a little about that today.
WHAT DOES TGC MEAN BY THEOLOGICAL FAMINE?
(Note: Most of what follows comes right from or is adapted from the TGC website)
During the past century, the number of Christian believers worldwide has grown dramatically. 75% of these now live on the continents of Africa, Asia, and South America. However, an estimated 85% of the 2.2 million evangelical churches worldwide are led by pastors with insufficient training. There is a famine of resources for preparing and equipping pastors in the Global South, and there is a famine of sufficiently equipped church leadership. This is what TGC means by a theological famine. It has a dramatic effect on life and witness of the church.
There are many groups working, and appropriately so, on relieving human misery caused by famine and other conditions. There are not so many concerned about the famine of solid biblical books to aid in discipleship, and the famine of adequately equipped leaders and discipleship in the international church. TGC aims to do its own small part in addressing “theological famine.”
Imagine that you are an indigenous pastor of a local church in northern Peru trying to shepherd a small congregation. You have received no formal training for the ministry and your understanding of the basic truths of the Bible is greatly lacking. You own only a few books and those are of questionable value. Internet access is not available, affordable or reliable. And yet, every week, you are responsible for feeding and leading your local church. This scenario describes thousands of pastors in many countries.
WHAT DOES TGC MEAN BY THEOLOGICAL FAMINE RELIEF?
TGC International Outreach is engaged in a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church. TGC is partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources in digital and physical formats. TGC’s goal is to help strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders called to shepherd them.
TGC wants to see pastors in the Global South receive access to good theological content through resources which are distributed in the context of TGC partners working in the field, whether expatriate or indigenous, providing training and mentoring. TGC hopes that church leaders will be personally impacted by the power of the gospel and, in turn, shepherd their congregations well—resulting in widespread gospel renewal, all for the praise of His glorious grace.
When it comes to missions, most people think in terms of sending and supporting workers, which of course is a vital means of spreading the gospel. But TGC believes that supplying rich, biblical content is also of critical importance.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Help TGC create resources by partnering with them financially…
TGC is initiating Relief Projects by working with translators, publishers, and printers in North America, as well as overseas. Through your generous gifts, our goal is to create, translate, and print great theological resources to strengthen church leaders in the Global South. These projects are crafted from TGC’s relationships with U.S. and foreign publishers and our partners working in the field. TGC wants to provide the right resources, in the right languages, to the right partners, so that church leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as Europe, will be strengthened and equipped for ministry.
2 Ways to Donate
- Choose from current Relief Projects and use the TGC online giving page to help them reach 100% funding. Gifts of any amount are welcome.
- If you or your church have a burden for a particular language or region of the world, TGC can often craft a special project that you can adopt and even help with distribution. Email TGC.
Help TGC send resources (they’re free)…
When is your next overseas cross-cultural trip? Packing Hope is your opportunity to obtain theological resources to enhance your mission in the field. Whether you’re traveling for missions, business, or even vacation, you can help TGC serve the global church. TGC donates relief resources in various languages for your short and long-term work. TGC will send you full cases of books to check as luggage for your overseas flights. Place an online order for resources to be shipped within the U.S. to your location of departure.
Help TGC spread via other languages…
The Internet is still unworkable for many in the Global South, but access is increasing all the time. In this effort to equip church leaders, biblical resources are needed in both physical and digital formats. TGC is working to deploy a multi-language web platform that will collect and spread the best resources in languages from around the world. TGC is gathering a worldwide network of translators. This initiative will allow TGC to expand its online efforts to create translated biblical teaching from trustworthy reformed theological content in manuscript, video, audio, and apps formats.
Your financial support will help TGC provide a website with high usability and mobile readiness, deploying a strong indexing feature to enhance searches by topic, author, scripture, and language. You can also help TGC by connecting with skilled volunteer translators and by strategically spreading the word about these resources to church leaders in need of access in other languages. Contact us.
Connect with likeminded ministry partners…
The Gospel Coalition is a network of networks. TGC brings together leaders that agree on gospel-centered ministry. TGC believes that in cooperating and pooling our resources we are able to accomplish things not possible on our own. TGC also believes these partnerships are providing a healthy element of unity, encouragement, and accountability.
TGC is working to learn alongside and partner with trusted networks around the world. TGC desires to encourage and support efforts to build like-minded coalitions and events. Together we can reach further and more effectively.
Here are some ways you can connect:
- Churches: sign up on the TGC international church network page.
- Publishers and cross-cultural missions: contact TGC.
- Attend TGC annual events, this is one of the best ways to meet like-minded people and ministries.
- Watch TGC international networks page for ministries & networks emerging in your part of the world.